Biography of Giordano Bruno, Scientist and Philosopher

A monument of Giordano Bruno in Rome
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Giordano Bruno (1548–1600) was an Italian scientist and philosopher who espoused the Copernican idea of a heliocentric (sun-centered) universe as opposed to the church's teachings of an Earth-centered universe. He also believed in an infinite universe with numerous inhabited worlds. Asked by the Inquisition to recant his beliefs, Bruno refused. He was tortured and burned at the stake for his outspoken beliefs.

Fast Facts: Giordano Bruno

  • Known For: Heretical views about astronomy and the nature of the universe
  • Also Known As: Filippo Bruno
  • Born: 1548 in Nola, Kingdom of Naples
  • Parents: Giovanni Bruno, Fraulissa Savolino
  • Died: February 17, 1600 in Rome
  • Education: Privately educated in a monastery and attended lectures at the Studium Generale
  • Published WorksThe Art of MemoryConcerning the Cause, Principle, and One, On the Infinite Universe and Worlds
  • Notable Quote: "The universe is then one, infinite, immobile...It is not capable of comprehension and therefore is endless and limitless, and to that extent infinite and indeterminable, and consequently immobile."

Early Life

Filippo (Giordano) Bruno was born in Nola, Italy in 1548; his father was Giovanni Bruno, a soldier, and his mother was Fraulissa Savolino. In 1561, he enrolled in school at the Monastery of Saint Domenico, best known for its famous member, Thomas Aquinas. Around this time, he took the name Giordano Bruno and within a few years had become a priest of the Dominican Order.

Life in the Dominican Order

Giordano Bruno was a brilliant, albeit eccentric, philosopher whose ideas rarely coincided with those of the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, he entered the Dominican convent of San Domenico Maggiore in Naples in 1565 where he assumed the name Giordano. His outspoken and heretical beliefs were noted by his superiors, but he was nevertheless ordained as a priest in 1572 and sent back to Naples to continue his studies.

While in Naples, Bruno discussed his heretical views aloud, including the Arian heresy which stated that Christ was not divine. These actions led to steps being taken toward a trial for heresy. He fled to Rome in 1576 and fled again in 1576 after some of his forbidden writings were uncovered.

Leaving the Dominican order in 1576, Bruno wandered Europe as a traveling philosopher, lecturing in various universities. His chief claim to fame were the Dominican memory techniques he taught, bringing him to the attention of King Henry III of France and Elizabeth I of England. Bruno's memory enhancement techniques, including mnemonics, are described in his book, "The Art of Memory" and are still used today.

Crossing Swords With the Church

In 1583, Bruno moved to London and then to Oxford, where he presented lectures discussing the Copernican theory of a sun-centered universe. His ideas were met with a hostile audience, and, as a result, he returned to London where he became familiar with the major figures of the court of Elizabeth I.

While in London, he also wrote a number of satirical works as well as his 1584 book, "Dell Infinito, universo e mondi" ("Of Infinity, the Universe, and the World"). The book attacked the Aristotelian vision of the universe, and, building on the works of the Muslim philosopher Averroës, suggested that religion is "a means to instruct and govern ignorant people, philosophy as the discipline of the elect who are able to behave themselves and govern others." He defended Copernicus and his sun-centered vision of the universe, and further argued that "the universe was infinite, that it contained an infinite number of worlds, and that these are all inhabited by intelligent beings."

Bruno continued his travels, writing and lecturing in England and Germany through 1591. During this time, Bruno both intrigued and angered local scholars. He was excommunicated in Helmstedt and asked to leave Frankfurt am Main, finally settling at a Carmelite monastery where he was described by the prior as “chiefly occupied in writing and in the vain and chimerical imagining of novelties.”

Final Years

In August 1591, Bruno was invited to return to Italy and, in 1592, was denounced to the Inquisition by a disgruntled student. Bruno was arrested and immediately turned over to the Inquisition to be charged with heresy.

Bruno spent the next eight years in chains in Castel Sant’Angelo, not far from the Vatican. He was routinely tortured and interrogated. This continued until his trial. Despite his predicament, Bruno remained true to what he believed to be true, stating to his Catholic Church judge, Jesuit Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, "I neither ought to recant nor will I." Even the death sentence handed down to him did not change his attitude as he defiantly told his accusers, "In pronouncing my sentence, your fear is greater than mine in hearing it."

Death

Immediately after the death sentence was handed down, Giordano Bruno was further tortured. On February 19, 1600, he was driven through the streets of Rome, stripped of his clothes and burned at the stake. Today, a statue of Bruno stands in the Campo de Fiori square in Rome.

Legacy

Bruno’s legacy of freedom of thought and his cosmological ideas had a significant impact on 17th and 18th century philosophical and scientific thought. On the other hand, while some of his ideas had merit and could be considered forward-thinking, others were based largely on magic and the occult. In addition, Bruno's disregard for the politics of the day was the direct cause of his death.

According to the Galileo Project, "It is often maintained that Bruno was executed because of his Copernicanism and his belief in the infinity of inhabited worlds. In fact, we do not know the exact grounds on which he was declared a heretic because his file is missing from the records. Scientists such as Galileo and Johannes Kepler were not sympathetic to Bruno in their writings."

Sources

  • Aquilecchia, Giovanni. “Giordano Bruno.” Encyclopædia Britannica.
  • Knox, Dilwyn. “Giordano Bruno.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 30 May 2018.
  • The Galileo Project. "Giordano Bruno."